The World Is Maths


May 2016

Relevance Is Not the Goal

Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger portion of the truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.

Edgar Allan Poe
The Mystery Of Marie Rogêt

In my last post, about the history of mathematics,  I mentioned briefly the mathematician GH Hardy, who was based in Cambridge in the early twentieth century and who was the mentor of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the subject of Hollywood’s latest foray into the world of mathematical genius.  Hardy wrote a wonderful book called A Mathematician’s Apology, in which he discusses the beauty of mathematics and expounds the importance of mathematics for its own sake, rather than for its applications.  Hardy was vociferous in his belief that the most beautiful mathematics was pure mathematics, that which had no applications. It wasn’t that Hardy was against applying mathematics per se, more that true elegance existed in a discipline that was pursued chiefly as a matter of intellectual curiosity, or in the act of creating or discovering something truly new, without the ulterior motive of improving the material lot of humankind. Continue reading “Relevance Is Not the Goal”


Mathematical Stories

Everyone loves a good story. Stories transport us to another time or place and make us think outside of ourselves, question our status quo. The mathematics classroom is not one of the more predictable places to find a good story, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.  One of my favourites goes something like this:

The Pythagoreans were an ancient mystical sect, a group of men who wore white robes and spent their days measuring and wondering; wondering at the beauty of nature and the expanse of the cosmos, resolute in their belief that the universe could be explained and deciphered using mathematics. They were masters of geometry and sought to understand the workings of the world by analysing numbers and shapes and the intersection of the two. One of the Pythagoreans’ core beliefs was that any number could be written as the ratio of two others in the way that 6 is 12/2, or 2.333333… is 7/3. This was the gift of the gods, that any number could be expressed through any other. It felt complete, it felt perfect. But for the Pythagoreans, perfection was about to be shattered. Continue reading “Mathematical Stories”

Junk Knowledge

Multiplying fractions is junk knowledge, so the TES told me this week.

That’s junk knowledge that enables someone to work adeptly with number.

That’s adeptly working with number that enables someone to abstract with algebra.

That’s algebraic abstraction that enables someone to understand calculus.

That’s understanding calculus that allows someone to become, say, an engineer.

That’s becoming an engineer that enables someone to design the building (and model and analyse its perfect conditions) that houses the servers on which the TES is located.

All so someone on the TES can call multiplying fractions ‘junk knowledge’.

I thought of lots of loops through mathematical knowledge with this same start and finish. It was quite good fun.

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